Melanie Tiang wanted to do her research before writing the script for this year’s United Khmer Students Culture Night play. Instead of turning to history books, she asked her fellow club members about their Cambodian upbringings.
Based on the responses to six questions on Google Forms about everything from the struggles of growing up Cambodian to their favorite Cambodian names, the fourth-year English student crafted a script. “Lost in Translation” will be featured as part of the 20th annual United Khmer Students Culture Night.
The event will take place Saturday at Schoenberg Hall, featuring Tiang’s play along with dance and spoken word performances.
The theme of this year’s culture discusses intergenerational trauma, because many of the survey responses discussed how the Cambodian genocide negatively impacted club members’ families, Tiang said.
During the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge, the communist regime in Cambodia, ruled the country and ordered mass killings that targeted individuals such as intellectuals, ethnic minorities, monks and culturally significant figures like singers and dancers.
Several members of the club have parents who sought asylum from Cambodia during the time period when mass executions occurred, Tiang said.
“Usually we have themes based on traditional folk tales, but this year we are focusing on the aftereffects of the genocide because it is something that members have to tackle everyday,” she said.
The play’s plot follows the lives of three Cambodian-American high school students, who each grapple with issues about their heritage. The first character, Sam, feels ashamed of his minority background and often hides from his heritage by avoiding using his full Cambodian first name, Sambat.
Another character, Sophean, lives with his single father who suffers from alcoholism and post-traumatic stress disorder because of the Cambodian genocide.
The third main character, Tavy, has helicopter parents who control her career aspirations in an attempt to fulfill their own desires, which had been cast aside during the genocide. Although the character wants to pursue Cambodian dance, her parents do not allow her to focus on anything other than a future in medicine.
Tiang incorporated many of the hardships the club members expressed during United Khmer meetings and on the Google Forms survey. For example, she said many members expressed a lack of communication about the genocide growing up, which created a generational divide between parents and Cambodian-American youth.
However, Tiang said her grandmother was willing to talk openly about the genocide and recounted stories of her family members walking on mountains covered with explosive minefields.
“Sometimes I was physically unable to hear the painful stories,” Tiang said.
For other members, Cambodian culture was barely mentioned at home. Johnson Thai, a first-year biology student who also identifies as Chinese, said his parents were surprised with his involvement in Cambodian Culture Night.
“I never grew up with other Cambodians and was not exposed much to my culture,” Thai said. “(My parents) were surprised that I wanted to learn about their cultural history, because we never talked about it or the genocide at home.”
Thai plays the part of Sophean, who grows up with an emotionally absent father struggling with mental illnesses that originated from the genocide, he said. Although Thai has a good relationship with his real father, he said he can relate to some of the disconnect in the parent and child dynamic expressed in Sophean’s narrative.
“Because I am growing up with so much privilege and am able to go to school while my parents had to survive the genocide and seek refuge, there can be a lack of relatability between us,” Thai said.
Often, Cambodian heritage is not acknowledged because it is underrepresented in many communities, said Rothinny Hoanghin, a third-year psychology student who plays Sam in the play. Growing up in Barstow, California, where the Asian population was very small, Hoanghin said he grew up not speaking about his Cambodian heritage and detaching from his culture, much like Sam in the play.
“I was one Cambodian-American in an already limited Asian-American population,” Hoanghin said. “I was the minority of minorities in a culture where (genocide) survivors were often underrepresented.”
Some actors conducted outside research to better understand how to play their characters, said Mealear Khiev, a fourth-year geography student.
Khiev began researching her heritage and the Cambodian genocide because her mother hardly spoke about the event.
After reading “First They Killed My Father,” a memoir from a Cambodian genocide survivor, Khiev considered auditioning for a role in “Lost in Translation,” eventually landing the role of Tavy, the character with overbearing parents.
“I related to some of the aspects of Tavy’s character, like she is a goody-two-shoes who has high expectations placed on her by family members,” Khiev said.
Just as the characters of the play still feel the effects of the Cambodian genocide through their parents’ actions, Khiev said club members connect to the theme of intergenerational trauma because of their own family experiences.
“Sometimes we do not see the effects, but we feel them,” she said, “Like sometimes I would just feel my mother’s anxiety and I could internalize it.”
Shedding light on repressed pain remains a main goal of the culture night, Hoanghin said.
“In Cambodian and other Asian cultures we do not acknowledge mental illnesses,” he said. “There is a lot of undiagnosed trauma and anxiety that is not being expressed.”
However, portraying Sam, a character whom he relates to, has helped Hoanghin come to terms with his heritage in a way he has not been able to in the past.
“Even though we may not fix the problem of trauma generated from the genocide, our willingness to understand the culture brings more representation of the Cambodian narrative,” Hoanghin said.